It was always going to be a difficult summer for sport. That we’ve been fortunate enough to witness England’s cricket team play, let alone in a quintet of brilliant matches, has been a real blessing, even in spite of the empty grounds and absent beer snakes.
England’s second One Day International series of the summer, this time against Australia, was faced with the challenge of living up to the high drama, as Ned Vessey has described, of the tests against the West Indies and Pakistan, the ODI versus Ireland and the T20 clashes with Pakistan and Australia. But, boy, how it did.
In the first of three matches, Australia opened the batting. They were without ex-captain Steve Smith, their usual number three, and started shakily: first, Jofra Archer bowled David Warner with a thumping 90 mph delivery, and then captain Aaron Finch edged a delivery from Durham’s Mark Wood. Marcus Stoinis, Marnus Labuschagne and Alex Carey followed suit after a scintillating spell of spin from Adil Rashid, leaving the tourists on 123-5 with just over half of their fifty overs to go.
But the Aussies were never going to go down quietly and a surge from Mitchell Marsh and Glenn Maxwell soon got the cogs turning again. Marsh and Maxwell’s partnership ran to 126 runs and although Mitchell Starc was the only batsmen of the remaining four to reach double figures, Australia managed to slog their way to 294-9.
At 57-4 after 16 overs, England started their batting even more meekly than their opponents thanks to a succession of suffocating deliveries from Adam Hazlewood and Adam Zampa, with Jason Roy, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler all taken in disappointing fashion.
Jonny Bairstow and youngster Sam Billings now entered the fray and they would go on to put up a fruitful partnership despite an aggressive Australian bowling display pinning them down to begin with. Bairstow reached 84 before being caught and Billings notched his first century in an impressive display, but a collapse of the bottom order saw the prolific Hazlewood and Zampa strike again, taking 3-26 and 4-55 respectively to secure victory.
Two days later, England’s batting again left much to be desired. Root and Morgan were on 90-2 at one stage but the pedigree of Australia’s pace bowlers was soon clear for all to see, with Zampa taking those two as well as Billings for just 36 runs. Rashid and Tom Curran were up against it as they came to the crease with their side at 149-8, yet the pair secured a strong finish by hitting the final six overs for 67 runs.
The Aussies knew that they needed just 232 runs to take the series, and Labuschagne and Finch’s 121-run stand near the top of the order certainly seemed to show their confidence. But, soon enough, ruthless attacks from Archer and Chris Woakes began to pay dividends. Within the space of 21 balls, a steaming Archer delivery had been chopped by Marsh onto his stumps and Woakes had first trapped Labuschagne lbw before bowling Finch off stump and taking Maxwell in the same fashion. At 147-6, requiring 85 from 95 balls, the game was well and truly on.
It would prove to be England’s second fightback of Australia’s tour, though their 24-run win ended up being much more comfortable than the first T20’s two-run margin on 4 September. Captain Morgan waxed lyrical in the aftermath of what was a tremendous victory, praising his teammates for proving they could “win ugly”.
But in the final test of the series, it would be England who would let victory slip through their fingertips and Australia who would show their grit.
England’s opening partnership of Roy and Root was bowled out for zero runs before Bairstow, Billings and Woakes, an oft-underappreciated trio, put in the hard yards at the crease to secure 112, 57 and 53 runs respectively. Posting 302-7 is not to be sniffed at, especially considering that it was combined with a good start to the bowling which saw Finch taken for 12, Stoinis for four, Warner for 24, Marsh for two and Labuschagne for 20 after just 16 overs.
Enter, Maxwell. His barnstorming, near-perfect partnership with Carey is what won the day for the visitors. Smash after smash from the former supplemented the delicate accuracy of the latter as they combined to take centuries each, though England certainly helped them out with a number of mistakes. Eight wides added nicely to the tourists’ run total, as did dropped catches by Root and Buttler and a huge, no-ball overstep by Archer when Carey had only just got going. Ultimately, the hosts failed to capitalise on their early form and stop messrs Maxwell and Carey before they hit their stride, and the decision for spin-bowler Rashid to take the final over will come in for much criticism.
But for all the disappointment of a final ODI which could well have been won, England and Australia showed exactly why this summer has been so enjoyable from a cricketing point of view. Fast-paced and dramatic with skill and squander in equal measure, it begs the question why on earth such a showdown wasn’t available to watch on free-to-air TV. There is no better advert for the sport than these type of games, however much the purists deify, perhaps rightly, test cricket.
Image: Richard Hoare via Creative Commons